DOTD secretary on pricey I-49 Connector: Eat this elephant one bite at a time _lowres

Advocate file photo by BRAD KEMP -- Shawn Wilson, secretary of Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, speaks March 15, 2016 during the Upper Lafayette Focuses on the I-49 Connector at the LITE Center in Lafayette, La.

If the Interstate 49 Connector ever gets built through Lafayette, it will likely be rolled out one piece at a time — the only way state transportation officials believe it’s feasible to tackle a road project estimated to cost at least $700 million.

“You can eat an elephant. You just can’t do it at one time,” Shawn Wilson, secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development, said during a Tuesday presentation he gave in Lafayette on the path forward for I-49 South.

Wilson, among other topics, laid out DOTD’s strategy for completing one of the largest transportation projects in recent state history.

He said there are no clear answers on where the money will come from for the 5.5-mile stretch through Lafayette, dubbed the “Connector.”

It is among the most expensive segments in the plan to complete I-49 South from Lafayette to New Orleans.

Wilson said federal dollars are key for the project, but more money will be needed.

“It is no longer a big cloud that is going to rain green dollars on the state to build a project,” he said of federal funding.

Because prospects are dim for one big check to pay for I-49, Wilson said, DOTD has asked designers to develop a plan for building the road in financially manageable segments that could be worked into a realistic annual budget, building one interchange or one elevated segment at a time as money becomes available.

“Give me pieces where I can break it up into $50 million and $60 million sections, because I can digest that,” he said.

Exactly what the ultimate design for the Connector might look like is still in play.

DOTD, the agency’s consultants and community advisory groups are discussing 12 different concepts: a preliminary design developed several years ago and 11 that have emerged in recent months.

Perhaps the most attention has been given to a proposal by Lafayette city-parish planners to elevate the interstate as it skirts downtown and to scrap two planned downtown interchanges.

The proposed tweak addresses complaints that the state’s preliminary design might be too disruptive for the downtown area.

Wilson made his comments Tuesday to the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority, an agency that finances public projects and owns developments in the downtown area.

LPTFA Chairman John Arceneaux added another proposal to the mix, one not yet on the table for official consideration.

“Why does this have to be an interstate?”Arceneaux asked, suggesting that Evangeline Thruway could be reworked into a boulevard designed to handle high-traffic volumes rather than an elevated interstate, which critics say could divide the city and lead to blight in its shadows.

The idea of abandoning the interstate concept is not on the table, but the public can comment on the preliminary design and the 11 alternative proposals at a DOTD meeting scheduled from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. April 27 at the Progressive Community Outreach Center on Gallian Street in Lafayette.

DOTD is expected to begin narrowing in on design concepts this summer.